Archive for August, 2015

You (really) need to play Eschatos

August 26, 2015

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Maybe you’re thinking: Scrolling shooters, eh. This one doesn’t even look that great… the graphics are pretty Dreamcast, the action looks junky, whatever. And in response I could explain that I had the exact same reaction and, you know, try to explain the details about why I ended up playing Eschatos anyways.

Well, forget all that noise. All of it. Eschatos hits Steam tomorrow, and you should play it, because Eschatos is the fucking greatest.

Reasons why Eschatos is the greatest like wow:

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1. Eschatos is every scrolling shooter rolled into one

Eschatos exists in a universe where scrolling shooter subgenres didn’t break apart and become endlessly specialized; it can’t accurately be called a traditional shooter, manic shooter, or bullet hell. Eschatos is all of these and also sometimes it is Galaga.

2. Eschatos has the best soundtrack of any game not named Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross

Very few games are elevated by their soundtracks, but composer Yousuke Yasui has created an energetic, emotional soundtrack that stands as one of the best in the medium. It really hits you in the feels and it even makes the shooting more shootier.

3. Eschatos is fully 3D and that’s crazy

This seems like a minor point; there are a lot of scrolling shooters with 3D graphics. But Eschatos takes this a step further, with dynamic camera angles that highlight the action. They’re skillfully integrated, making Eschatos feel cinematic without interrupting gameplay. These camera angles will blow your mind and you will enjoy shooting things like never before.

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4. Eschatos never stops

Eschatos doesn’t have discrete levels. Instead it has one continuously flowing stage, a choice which lends the game a sense of narrative design that other shooters lack. Players are always playing instead of sitting through “fade to black” moments. Think of the intro to Half-Life and how much you enjoyed looking around that tram as Gordon Freeman, and then imagine that’s not boring and instead is great. Eschatos is like that. There are no breaks; you are always playing.

5. Eschatos has the single most serene moment in any videogame, ever

Eschatos’ narrative strengths and Yasui’s compositions work together to create one perfect moment halfway through the game. Haunting music begins as the player’s ship blasts off from Earth’s atmosphere and into the depths of space, the planet Eschatos looming in the distance. It’s a singularly beautiful moment that I look forward to every time I play.

6. Eschatos’ shield mechanic cuts through the bullshit

A lot of scrolling shooters have a gotcha moment that takes you off guard and generally just ruins your day. “That’s not fair!” you scream, as rain falls outside your window and world hunger continues to be real. But Eschatos actively refuses to be unfair. The player’s ship has a shield which can actively cut through the most difficult waves of bullets, giving Eschatos a sense of freedom that other shooters lack. It’s not completely do or die; you can improvise your way out of certain death. Don’t rely on the shield too much, though—it can only help out so much before it needs to recharge.

7. Eschatos is loaded with content

Eschatos doesn’t mess around, because Eschatos is the real deal. There are three game modes, all incredibly fun, with a bunch of difficulty options ranging from “actually easy” to “this was programmed as a cruel joke.” Eschatos also has a system of progressive score-based unlockables that let you tweak the game’s graphical effects to your liking. Oh, and there’s an endless mode in case you never ever want to stop playing Eschatos.

8. Eschatos actually makes you think about what you’re doing instead of holding the shot button like a big dumb baby

In most modern day shooters, you might as well hold down the shot button constantly, because it covers the whole screen and there’s no reason to do otherwise. But Eschatos’ system of weaker wide shots versus more powerful narrow shots (and let’s not forget the shield!) encourages players to switch between shot types to take out enemy waves. There’s a sense of puzzliness to it too, and it’s really satisfying to work out which shot works best in which situations.

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9. Eschatos’ scoring mechanics don’t require a technical manual to understand

If I’ve got to browse online forums to even figure out how a shooter’s scoring system works, then that shooter is doing it wrong. Eschatos’ scoring is simple and fun—you get bonus points and a point multiplier for killing all the enemy waves as fast as possible. Boom, got it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s an Advanced mode that introduces a lot of quirky mechanics and score candy.

10. Eschatos’ boss battles are short, sweet, and to the point

I hate boss battles where you spend half the time not even damaging the boss, because he has to do some stupid garbage attack before you can even try to take him out. The bosses in Eschatos are all incredibly fun without having neverending health bars or snooze-worthy gimmick attacks. And that final boss. Oh man. I think he may be the best final boss.

11. Eschatos’ graphics are actually kinda good, really you guys

I know, I know. Dreamcast visuals, etc. (Or, god forbid, N64 visuals?) But there are really a lot of great explosions and particle effects in this game, the outer space scenery is unbelievably gorgeous, and the alien designs actually look alien. Plus, the graphical style is like a 3D update to what shooting games looked like in the ‘80s. Eschatos appreciates the genre’s history without being all “hey guys am I retro yet?” about it.

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12. Eschatos comes with two other totally amazing games

Okay, so I don’t know if this holds true for the Steam release—but publisher Degica Games have hinted that they’re going to release the award-winning Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins at some point in the future. These Wonderswan Color(!) games are almost as good as Eschatos, and really blew away all my expectations for what a handheld shooting game could be. They don’t feel quaint or compromised at all; they’re really some of the best scrolling shooters you’ll ever play. And, finally:

13. Eschatos really makes you think about life

Like, wow.

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Breaking into scrolling shooters

August 19, 2015

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that I love, love, love scrolling shooters. A while back I even wrote a massive post about scrolling shooters — I wanted to pick apart the genre in a scholarly way, highlighting notable games and asking questions that would get people thinking about them on a deeper level.

Well, I feel the need to add onto that article. Many of the games I listed in my original article are super rare and super expensive, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to appreciate them theoretically. More than any other genre, scrolling shooters live or die by the fundamental “fun-ness” of play. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite affordable and available shooters. These are shooters I would vouch for no matter what, but they’re also fun and accessible picks that won’t put a hurt on your wallet.

– PC –

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Cho Ren Sha 68K

I’m not much for classics, but Cho Ren Sha is everything you need and nothing you don’t. Every element feels perfectly balanced, as if the creators knew exactly what they wanted before they started programming. Colorful enemies, blazing-fast gunfire, powerful tunes, and a brilliantly simple powerup system (choose: bomb, powerup, or shield!) come together to make for one of the all-time greats. If Cho Ren Sha has a fault, it’s that it only has one background… but hey, it worked for Galaga.

Price: Free

Alltynex Second

Spaceships with gimmicky weapons are a time-honored scrolling shooter tradition, and Alltynex Second brings the heat with *three* separate gimmick weapons in one ship. Normally that would be enough to tank a game under its own excess, but Alltynex Second pulls it off wonderfully. The homing shot takes out small enemies, the power beam tears through bosses, and the laser sword cancels enemy bullets as it hacks away at their mechanized faces. There’s more than a little bit of hack-and-slash DNA in this one, and cutting apart enemies piece by piece never loses its appeal.

Price: $8 on Steam

Crimzon Clover: World Ignition

“World Ignition” is more than just a flashy subtitle. When Crimzon Clover exploded onto Steam, scrolling shooter fans went totally bonkers. That’s because Crimzon Clover nails every aspect of bullet hell design—hardcore action, non-stop explosions, over-the-top visuals, and an endless supply of glittering point items. There’s a wealth of content, with four different arcade modes and two novice modes for people (like me) who just aren’t that great at bullet hell games. Crimzon Clover demonstrates yet again that a one-man indie can outperform even the biggest studios. If you want to experience for yourself the intricacy and adrenaline of bullet hell shooters without the costly import prices, Crimzon Clover is unmissable.

Price: $10 on Steam

Also try: Danmaku Unlimited 2, Hydorah, Jamestown, and Kamui

– Xbox 360 –

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Score Rush

Score Rush combines all the best elements of Geometry Wars with the kaleidoscopic gunfire of a bullet hell. Twin-stick controls, 4-player multi, and tons of psychedelic particle effects make this an incredibly fun and accessible shooter. It’s just about the only scrolling shooter that you can have an entire room of friends playing in no time. Such is Score Rush’s simplicity and curb appeal—when I think of no-brainer 360 purchases, Score Rush is at the top of the list.

Price: $1 on Xbox Live Indie; Free on PC

Raiden Fighters Aces

Raiden Fighters Aces offers a rare glimpse into what scrolling shooters looked like just before bullet hells changed the genre completely. There aren’t any intricate patterns of slow-moving bullets here—In Raiden style, the action is blisteringly fast, emphasizing twitch reflexes and wide dodges in order to avoid enemy sniper shots. All three Raiden Fighters games are included on-disc, and between them there’s a massive number of playable ships, each with their own weapons, stats, and bombs. And that soundtrack, holy crap. What it lacks in melody it makes up for in raw intensity.

Price: ~$15

Deathsmiles

I could tell you all about what a great developer Cave is and blah blah blah but instead I’ll say that this game features a giant rotting cow named Mary as an end of level boss, and I think that really says everything right there. Deathsmiles’ Halloween motif leans cutesy rather than gory, but underneath the cheese is a smart shooter that cuts through the typical bullet hell crap. Level select, per-level difficulty select, and simplified bullet patterns mean that you don’t have to be an absolute monster to beat Deathsmiles. Even so, there’s more than enough for players to bite into as they gain skills and start chasing high scores.

Price: ~$10

Also try: Akai Katana, Ikaruga, and Chronoblast

– Playstation 3 –

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Zanac X Zanac

Allow me be a crazy person for a second and tell you that one of the best scrolling shooters on PS3 is actually an enhanced port of an NES game. Zanac is a thing of subtle beauty, by which I mean it’s actually kind of hideous and could easily fool you into thinking it’s total garbage. But oh man, don’t tell that to Zanac. Because Zanac hears. What sets Zanac apart from other scrolling shooters is that it features randomized waves of enemies, sent by the AI that is Zanac. How many shots you’re firing, what powerups you pick up; everything is analyzed by Zanac and every game of Zanac is customized to kill you, specifically. The powerups in this one are just incredible—absolutely top of class. Plus there’s a really sweet challenge mode that could keep you playing, like, forever. Oh, and also a really good Playstation version included called Zanac Neo. Yeah, there’s that, too.

Price: $6 on PSN

Under Defeat HD

Under Defeat boasts the sort of elegant beauty that you’d never expect from a scrolling shooter about World War II helicopter pilots. Every scene is bursting with detail, and the stunning particle effects and dynamic smoke highlight the action across stages of forested gun-emplacements, massive naval fleets, and bombed out military bases. Even though the game takes place in a fictitious alternate timeline, a strong sense of realism makes Under Defeat extremely compelling. The “lean into your shots” control scheme is novel and fun, and the scoring system utilizes the player’s vulcan, cannon, and rocket powerups in a simple and satisfying way. To top it off, this version also includes a widescreen, twin-stick mode with a remixed soundtrack courtesy of the always-great Yousuke Yasui.

Price: $10 on PSN

Gradius V

Gradius V may be the ultimate sidescrolling shooter. I don’t mean that it’s the best, or that it’s my personal favorite. What I mean is that Gradius V seems to carry the entire legacy of the genre on its shoulders as you play—It’s monolithic, majestic, and impossibly slick, with tight level design and spectacular boss battles. It’s also ruthlessly difficult, requiring players to memorize certain routes to make it through. That’s all part of what it means to be a Gradius game. But the system of unlockable continues means everyone can eventually play Gradius V to the end, and really, I’d say this is the best game in the series since the original Gradius codified the genre in 1985. Play them both.

Price: $10 on PSN

Also try: Castle Shikigami 2, Velocity

– Wii (and Wii U) –

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Blast Works

I’m not sure I can call Blast Works a great game; hell, I’m not entirely sure I can even call it a good game. What it is, though, is a uniquely fun game, thanks to an irresistible premise: Blast Works is essentially Katamari Damacy as a scrolling shooter. Every enemy you kill can be latched onto any side of your ship; they contribute their firepower to yours and also act as a giant meat shield. By the end of the stage, you’ll feel like the end of level boss, because your fighter craft will be have a hundred other guns attached to it. All that craziness, plus the game has a robust level and ship editor. Blast Works is fun with friends as well, and… that’s why you bought your Wii, isn’t it? Ah, you were in it for Wii Fit. Nevermind then.

Price: ~$5

Sin and Punishment 2

This game is just bonkers. Sin and Punishment 2 is like a rail shooter, lightgun game, and scrolling shooter fused together and jacked up to eleven. There are a bajillion things to shoot at, and the level designs are truly inspired. There’s an overgrown ruin of destroyed Tokyo, a hoverbike chase on a not so abandoned highway, and a flight down a literal water tunnel, where giant morays and enemy ships burst through the walls of water to attack. That’s to say nothing of the bosses, which are massive, frequent, and phenomenal.

Price: ~$15

Wii Virtual Console

There aren’t many great retail shooters for Wii, but it still has one of the best collections of scrolling shooters on any system thanks to the Virtual Console. There are sooo many great and otherwise hard to find games; hell, it was the Wii Virtual Console that got me deeply into shooters in the first place. Take to the skies in your mech and blow apart neo-feudal Japan in MUSHA; headbang hard with the heavy metal soundtrack and awesomely mythological monsters of Lords of Thunder; destroy cute-em-up baddies as a Turbografx-16 videogame system itself in Star Parodier. And while you’re at it, definitely try out Gate of Thunder. It’s my favorite sidescrolling shooter of all time.

Price: $8-9

Also try: Blazing Lazers, Fantasy Zone, R-Type and R-Type III, and Soldier Blade

Those are my personal picks for fun, affordable scrolling shooters. Hopefully you discovered a new favorite or added something to your never-ending list of games to check out. Narrowing down this list was tough; scrolling shooters are a huge genre dating back to gaming’s infancy, and I had to cut a few of my absolute favorites. Maybe I missed a few of your favorites, too.

On that note, I’m gonna turn things around and ask you: What’s your favorite scrolling shooter?

I wanna be the Final Boss

August 10, 2015

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Holy crap. How can something so awesome sit right under my nose for so long? Even as a freeware scrolling shooter with just three (incredibly, unbelievably wonderful) stages, Final Boss stands toe-to-toe with the genre greats that inspired it. Gradius, R-Type, Raiden, and lesser-known classics like Eschatos—move over. Final Boss is here.

The developers would, of course, balk at being compared with those classics. There’s love for the genre in every frame of Final Boss, from battles against the Vic Viper and R-Type Arrowhead, to certain Rayforce-inspired weaponry, to an endgame surprise that exceeded my wildest expectations. Playing Final Boss makes it immediately clear how much the developers love scrolling shooters.

Final Boss also makes clear just how much has gone wrong with the genre. Look, I love scrolling shooters too. I love them to death. I’ve written about them on this blog plenty of times. But when I think about them as they are, right now, they’re a dying genre. They’re so niche, so specialized, that there’s nothing for new players to grasp onto except for the occasional Jamestown, Sine Mora, or Ikaruga. The reasons for this are plenty: Shooters have trended toward magical girls instead of mecha; toward too many bullets; toward a lack of narrative flow and meaningful progression; toward scoring systems that require technical manuals to understand.

Final Boss strips away the genre’s bitter rind to reveal the pulp inside. While playing, I was struck time and time again by just how much the developers have gotten right. Each level flows from scene to scene, pitting players against diverse challenges culminating in a breakneck boss battle. That’s nothing new. What’s new is that Final Boss offers players real choice. Beat the first level and you can choose one of two subweapons to use for the rest of the game: Rear fire or side shot, each of which drastically change the way players approach enemy swarms. And Final Boss offers another subweapon at the end of every level, each choice more impressive than the last, so that subsequent stages bring with them new opportunities, challenges, and a tacit understanding that the player is one step closer to becoming the Final Boss.

And god, these stages. There have been essays about how level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. is the perfect tutorial—Final Boss’s stages are exactly like that. Each blistering act teaches you everything you need to know, right as it happens, and they progress from beat to beat to beat without halting the action for a second. They contain as many ideas as any three levels in another shooter, the third level in particular being absolutely sublime. At one point, the player sees a glimmering tower in the distance and descends through the clouds toward it, where coils a mecha-serpent ready to strike. It’s a marvel, calling to mind the Mode 7 bosses of Konami and Treasure at their best. In any other shooter this technical showpiece would be the end of stage boss. In Final Boss, it’s just another part of the level.

This level of polish and perfection is apparent in every aspect of the game. The graphics are chunky and authentic without pandering to retro cliches. The scoring system is direct and effective, tasking players with destroying enemies in quick succession. There aren’t any slow-moving bullet hell waves to scare off new players, rather, shots are fast and furious volleys that test players’ skill and reflexes. The game is tough but fair, awarding players with extra continues as they play and replay stages. It’s damned good, and totally accessible to new players.

I can’t say enough good things about this game. I’ve spoken with the developers, two humble peeps from Finland who insist that Final Boss still feels to them like some “indie freeware shooter.” I’m going to respectfully disagree. To me, that’s like calling Shovel Knight “just some Megaman wannabe.” There are some rough edges, of course. The game is too short, obviously, and it has Engrish-ey scrolling shooter memes sprinkled awkwardly throughout. The devs have stated that these memes are already removed in their latest build, and were holdovers from when the project was less ambitious. Even in its unfinished state, I consider Final Boss to be in the upper echelon of shooters; there’s very little about its design that doesn’t feel considered, warranted, wonderful.

So play it. Here’s the link to the three-stage demo. Tell me what you think. Tell the developers what you think. I want to see the day when Final Boss is released; I want to see scrolling shooters change, and grow; I want them to have a future.

But, most of all, I want you to experience what it’s like to be Final Boss.

Super Game Cubes

August 6, 2015

Console

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